News & Opinion

LGBT Brazilians ‘Fearful but Defiant’ as Bolsonaro Takes Power

Date:
January 4, 2019

One of new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s first actions was to remove LGBT rights from a certain ministry. Campaigners are alarmed at what his next anti-LGBT move might be.

The first anti-LGBT move made by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on his first day in office has left LGBT Brazilians “fearful but defiant,” according to Leandro Ramos, director of programs at international advocacy organization All Out.

On the first day of his presidency Bolsonaro removed LGBT concerns from the remit of the country’s new human rights ministry. The newly named Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights made no explicit reference to LGBT rights in its priorities and internal structures, reported Pink News, citing a report in Brazilian newspaper O Globo.

There is a “National Council for Combating Discrimination” in Brazil, rather than what was once known as the “National Council for Combating Discrimination and Promotion of the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Travestis and Transgender.”

Ramos, who is based in Sao Paulo, told The Daily Beast: “I am personally extremely concerned, and I think the general feeling across the movement is of extreme concern. The most challenging part of this is that it is all very unpredictable. Bolsonaro has made attacking LGBT rights and people a very central element of his campaign and political career. It is unclear how far he is willing to go now that he has been elected president.”

The Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights later released a statement saying that “The current Directorate for the Promotion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Travesti and Transsexual Rights, formerly a body of the National Secretariat of Citizenship, will be maintained, with the same structure, in the National Secretariat of Global Protection.”

Damares Alves, the Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights is anti-abortion and socially conservative, describing herself as “terribly Christian,” and vowing to fight “the ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers.” She has also insisted that LGBT rights would not be “violated.”

However, Bolsonaro’s critics saw the first-day declassification of LGBT rights as significant.

Tarah Demant, Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program at Amnesty International USA, told The Daily Beast LGBT people in Brazil were now “looking down the barrel of the Government’s gun, which is coming for them.”

Demant said: “We see this as part of package of attacks. Bolsonaro attacked LGBT people on his first day in office, alongside indigenous people, particularly the descendants of slaves—black Brazilians. This is part of a much bigger attack on basic human rights, which the president promised throughout his campaign. It is coming to pass, as we feared it would.”

Bolsonaro was taking his cues, said Demant, from President Trump, who—alongside former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley—has hailed Bolsonaro’s victory.

Demant said, “Bolsonaro is doing to LGBT people what Trump is trying to do to trans people—to write them out of existence. Their idea is if the Government says you do not exist, or you are not worthy of certain rights, then nobody has to worry about that.”

The New York Times recently reported on the rush of same-sex couples getting married in Brazil, fearful that their right to do so could be imperiled under Bolsonaro, who has claimed the “true meaning of matrimony” lies between a man and woman.

Demant said it was unlikely that the Brazilian Constitution would allow Bolsonaro to make same-sex marriage illegal, but predicted that the administration could seek to undermine the meaning and practicalities of same-sex marriage incrementally through religious freedom laws “and finding ways to roll back and chip away at it. That again would be taking its cue from what is happening here in the United States. They will use whatever means they can to attack the basic human rights of LGBT people. The election of Bolsonaro is part of a broader trend of the rise of authoritarian governments, and one of their first targets is always LGBT people.”

Demant cited the unsolved murder of Brazilian activist Marielle Franco as a symbol of the lack of justice LGBT Brazilians may be forced to endure.

Franco, a bisexual Afro-Brazilian politician, activist, and feminist, was killed last March. For Demant, Franco’s “intersectional activism” was especially significant given Bolsonaro’s attacks on a range of minorities.

Ramos said the scale and nature of Bolsonaro and his government’s anti-LGBT intentions were still unclear. Previous governments, he said, had structurally shifted the responsibility for LGBT rights as Bolsonaro had done this week.

“This isn’t to diminish any concerns,” Ramos said. “We are just waiting to see what happens next. There are a few possibilities. We are concerned that a bill last year, aimed at eliminating the possibility of LGBT and other minority rights within schools may come back. Another, more aggressive possibility, is that there could be an anti-LGBT ‘propaganda’ law like the Russian one is introduced.

“What we do know is that before and after the elections LGBT are being attacked and assaulted with what could be called a political motivation. While they have been attacked, their attackers have chanted Bolsonaro’s name. Whatever formal shape Bolsonaro’s attacks take, in terms of legislation, the damage has been done. We don’t know to what extent.”

Ramos said that All Out and a group of independent activists and organizations had set up a special online service offering LGBT Brazilians the opportunity to report attacks, as well as physical and psychological assistance. “We had requests from across the country,” said Ramos. “This is something people are experiencing. This is already happening.”

Ramos said LGBT rights in Brazil had never been voted on in the country’s National Congress. Marriage equality, secured in 2013, had come via a Supreme Court ruling, as had the right of transgender people to legally change their names and gender markers.

“We do not have laws countrywide in Brazil that protect LGBT rights,” said Ramos. “That doesn’t mean it would be super-easy for Bolsonaro to change everything, but there is an increased risk to those LGBT rights because they are not recognized in law and have never been approved by Congress. The rights the LGBT population have are fragile.”

Ramos said he was concerned about the “subtle moves” the new government could take, “attacking something, but never been exact or clear about what it is they are attacking. When they talk about ‘ideological indoctrination,’ what they mean is they don’t want teachers talking about women’s and LGBT rights.”

“People are definitely scared,” Ramos said of Brazil’s LGBT population generally. “They are definitely concerned about what could happen. But at the same time there has been new initiatives, movements, and alliances forming to resist what is happening right now, like the election of 3 trans women of color to state assemblies in the recent elections. Among LGBT people there is defiance and a willingness to resist.”

Sao Paulo has one of the largest Pride marches in the world, added Ramos. “It’s massive, millions of people, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Bolsonaro’s administration could try to ban those marches, as the Turkish authorities had done, Ramos said. “But I don’t think they would manage to get us out of the streets. This has been such an important achievement for the LGBT community in Brazil. I am not going anywhere, and LGBT people in Brazil are not going anywhere.”